Published on October 1, 2016.

Common Sense

A survivor of The Station nightclub joins the home sprinkler fight

ON FEBRUARY 20, 2003, Rob Feeney and his fiancée, Donna Mitchell, were among the scores of people packed into The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Onstage pyrotechnics started a devastating fire that killed 100 people, including Mitchell, and injured many more, Feeney among them. He recently wrote a series of blog posts for NFPA’s Fire Sprinkler Initiative that detailed his recovery, his struggles, and the purpose he found as a burn survivor, including his work in support of home fire sprinklers. Feeney recently became a call firefighter with the Onset Fire Department in Massachusetts and advocates for fire sprinklers and fire safety issues nationwide for Common Voices, an advocacy initiative of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, and the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. The following is an excerpt from Feeney’s FSI posts.

Following The Station fire, I had very few plans except to see Donna’s two daughters through high school. After that, I really didn’t care what happened to me.

In 2006, I was introduced to the Phoenix Socitey for Burn Survivors. It’s the largest national peer support organization for burn survivors, their families, healthcare professionals, and fire service and industry personnel. In 2008, I attended its annual conference, the World Burn Congress, in Cleveland, Ohio. I was extremely overwhelmed and didn’t talk to many people the first couple of days. However, I listened to keynote speakers who had battled through adversity and beat the odds to live lives of happiness.

That year I also met Amy Acton, the Phoenix Society’s executive director. At the following year’s World Burn, she remembered me. She asked if I would be available for local media interviews. She also invited me to attend a special training by media guru Brad Phillips to develop my advocacy skills. Amy then asked me to join her at a live burn/sprinkler demonstration and then on a local TV show to discuss the Phoenix Society and fire sprinklers. I was enjoying what little [advocacy] I was doing, even though I didn’t know where it was leading.

In 2010, I [went] to Tennessee to testify in front of the Chattanooga City Council to get a bylaw passed requiring fire sprinklers in the city’s nightclubs ... I was given three minutes to speak. I told them that three minutes was all it took to kill 96 of the 100 people in [The Station] fire. The bylaw passed by one vote.

The councilman who cast the deciding vote met me in the hallway to thank me for my testimony and let me know that I had changed his vote. Following the hearing, the mayor of Chattanooga invited us to his office and thanked me for helping him protect the people in his city.

I realized what Amy Acton had in mind for me. I was using my voice and my story for a greater cause. I was a fire sprinkler advocate. Reliving my story was not only helping me emotionally, but was also helping enact changes in fire safety ... In 2013, I was honored to be the second recipient of the Phoenix Society’s Advocacy Award at the World Burn Congress in Providence, Rhode Island.

Surviving the Station Nightclub Fire
In 2003, fire consumed the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode island. One hundred people died in the fire, making it "the one of the deadliest nightclub fire in American history." In this video, Station nightclub fire survivor Robert Feeney talks about his experience the night of the fire and how it later led to his work as a sprinkler advocate.

Being an advocate changed how I lived my life. It created a confidence I had been missing. I was able to find love again, get married, start a family, and, to the surprise of many people, enter the fire service.

I am one voice with one story trying to speak for Donna and the others who lost their lives in The Station fire. Raising awareness and advocating for new sprinkler laws has largely been an uphill battle. Sometimes it seems like an unnecessary battle, since we’re talking about common sense. We’ve made definite footprints in the sand on the fire sprinkler issue, but [they] can be washed away over time if they’re not walked over again and again. So we walk again. We keep going until our footprints are no longer in the sand, but are in concrete—to stay for good.

Top Photograph: Jon Chomitz